The Day Wall Street Exploded: Anarchy in the USA

Why couldn't Beverly Gage have been my high school history teacher? Don't get me wrong, I had some great history teachers but never a great American History teacher and if The Day Wall Street Exploded is any indication, Beverly Gage is a great teacher.

Gage tells a forgotten or, at least in my case, unknown part of American History about time when labor and business seemed locked in a battle to the death. This isn't a story of Wall Street. It is a story of class war, of labor versus big business, about immigrants versus natives, about haves versus have nots, about people who've been thrown out or fled their homelands and came to America hoping to continue their fight against oppression. Oppression wasn’t in short supply. It takes a bit of effort to envision a time when work could, literally, kill you; when a day off probably meant you’d been injured on the job. Fighting for better pay and working conditions sometimes meant literally fighting. On occasion business owners fought back with guns. On fewer occasions, more militant workers returned the favor via dynamite.

Against this background, an explosion on Wall Street wasn’t as surprising as it might first seem. Wall Street, especially J. P. Morgan, was seen as being the power behind big business. There was no shortage of suspects or suspect groups. Gage follows the threads of these suspects going back to the Haymarket explosion to the "first" anarchist to hit our shores (Johann Most) to the Wobblies and Big Bill Hayward, Emma Goldman, and one time presidential candidate and federal inmate Eugene Debs. She then moves on to the law side of the story with various agencies, police departments and the nascent Bureau of Investigation all trying to track to answer the question of who did it and why.

This is not a mystery story nor is it true crime – you won’t find a satisfying answer to the question above, for instance. What you will find is a very satisfying story of anarchist and Socialists in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century. This is an informative, entertaining book that is a must for anyone interested in American history.

Big Deal

The only thing better than a great book is finding an author who's books just keep getting better. Bryan Burrough has been one of those authors for me since Barbarians at the Gate. He has a knack for telling complex, multi-year, multi-character stories in a way that informs and entertains. It's one thing to explain how the RJR Nabisco imploded, it's something else entirely to make it a fun read. And that's what Burrough does every time: he tells a great story.

The Big Rich is another instant classic. Two chapters in I'm so hooked I nearly missed by stop - fortunately Grand Central is a terminal but still the trains do go back out. So eat right and exercise, Bryan! I'm counting on you for another dozen books.

Tonto is crazy, Kemo Sabe

Cruel Deception succeeds in the face of two significant challenges. First, as topics go, "Mothers who kill" is depressing. Second, any book on the topic of Munchausen By Proxy stands in the shadow of Nancy Wright's great "A Mother's Trial. In the hands of true crime master Gregg Olsen this tale, while still full of horror, is downright uplifting and a worthy successor to Wright's book.

Tanya Thaxted Reid - Tonto to her family - appears to be a typical small town girl at the start of the book. She wants nothing more than to live in the town she grew up in, have a doting husband and two perfect children. Under the surface things weren't so simple or typical. Tanya was the youngest of four girls raised by strict parents. Like many teens, Tanya wanted to stand out AND fit in. But Tanya lacks the will or personality or inner strength to make and stick to tough decisions. At times she seems unable to make any decisions.

Except when there is a crisis. In the glare of ambulance lights and surrounded by concerned onlookers Tanya is pillar of calm, decisive strength. She isn't just at her best during a health crisis, she's most alive. At first it's impressive, then it's creepy and then it's scary. When her baby daughter has repeated episodes of asphixia which ultimately take her life, it's a tragedy. Then her sons starts to have a have similar spells. EMTs, doctors and nurses, even neighbors all slowly come to the conclusion that something is wrong but none can articulate it. Or maybe they can't bring themselves to say it out loud: Tanya is purposely causing her children to stop breathing. That last sentence is tough even to type. It makes you want to take a shower just reading it so how impossible would it be to believe that someone who could do that would look and act normal. She should look like a monster. She should be a complete enigma. Gregg Olsen doesn't let us get off that easy.

Olsen is unique among true crime writers in that he writes about the criminals not sympathy or admiration masquerading as disgust/details (you know you've read a few true crimes books where the author spends way too much time detailing the crimes themselves and the murderers "brilliance" at evading capture) but with empathy. He tries to view events from their point of view. As a reader you find yourself not understanding Tanya but truly seeing her. She's lonely, she's desparate for attention - of the parental approval kind - and she's angry. Angry at her husband's lack of attention, angry that she's been dragged away from the only place she's ever wanted to live, angry that she's not accepted, angry that she can't have the career she wants, angry that she just can seem to crack the code of human interaction. Tanya is furious. She just can't show it.

What keeps this from being unrelentingly depressing is the way Olsen balances Tanya's story with that of the people trying to stop her. Melodee Hardin is the anti-Tanya of the story. She's a successful attorney with a daughter she dotes on. At first I wondered if Olsen wasn't just a little too impressed with the fact that Melodee used to be a ballerina. When the courtroom scenes come along, you get it: there may be a tutu in her closet but Melodee is a street-fighting kinda gal. Try to evade a question on the stand and Melodee will mess you up. All in the name of justice for abused children, no less.

This is another great true crime entry from Gregg Olsen who's become as reliable as Ann Rule, Kathryn Casey and late-greats Jack Olsen and Shana Alexander at delivering the goods. A must for serious true crime fans.

Kindle note: there are photographs but no table of contents in the Kindle edition.

Because They're Dead

There are many ways to tell a true crime story. Police procedural, inside the mind of the killer, the victims'/survivors POV, the reporter's vantage point, etc. Good true crime requires good reporting. The writer needs to speak to as many people in the case as are willing to talk, read every available document and, if possible, attend the trial. When this is done, the author can present a complete picture of what happened and why.

What the author can't do is tell you what the murder victim was thinking and saying to another murder victim five minutes before his/her death unless video or audio recording is involved. That doesn't stop Ken Englade from filling a whole chapter of "conversation" between Derek and Nancy Haysom in the hours before they were murdered by the nutjob boyfriend of their nutjob daughter. I have a problem with this because the Haysoms weren't recording their own thoughts and movements so the documentation is thin to say the least. Interviews after the fact are out of the question too, because they're dead. This is a questionable choice and it gets worse because this clearly imagined conversation between Derek and Nancy does absolutely nothing to advance the story or to help the reader understand who they were. Unless you count the fact that Englade presents them as lushes.

This book is filled with similarly bad narrative choices. Try another one: you have the choice of choosing nutjob Elizabeth Haysom as the backbone of your story or the plodding police investigation following the Haysoms' murders. Let's see, would readers be more entertained and informed by getting inside the head of lying, drug-addicted, sorta-bisexual, self-perceived martyr Elizabeth or hearing run of the mill exchanges between cops who have "hunches" and make questionable fashion choices. That's right, Englade goes with the cops.

I do have to thank Mr Englade for providing me with the much-needed inspiration to clean my closet, sort through receipts for tax season and finally reorganize my sock drawer. It was like magic, a few pages of "Beyond Reason" and I was suddenly compelled to do something around the house. If only this book had been longer I might finally have gotten around to re-grouting the tile in the guest bathroom. It takes real commitment to turn a story of madness, murder and an international manhunt into a snooze-fest but Ken Englade looked that challenge in the face and stared it down. I sought out this book because it was, amazingly, nominated for an Edgar Award. The only explanation I have for this is that only five "Fact Crime" book were published in 1991 because it defies imagination that there could be a book out there that wasn't good enough to knock this gem off the list.

If you have a deep interest in police fashion or a need to get a head start on your spring cleaning, this is the book for you. Otherwise, keep moving, there's nothing here to see, folks.